Those of us that play the points game likely have the same excitement and anticipation each year as the draw results come out. Come May, I was down on my luck having not drawn any tags, even one I thought was a sure thing. I wasn’t expecting much from the Nevada draw, but the beauty of their bonus point system is that everybody has a chance to draw a tag. Checking my email on May 24th I expected to see the usual “unsuccessful” notices, but instead was surprised to see those beautiful words in green – NR Elk Antlered Result: Successful Somehow, some way, I finally drew a Nevada bull elk tag!
My research began immediately. Topo maps and Google Earth. Roads, access points, trails. BLM, National Forest and wilderness areas. Hunting an area out of state you have never laid eyes on can be daunting but I really love the entire process. It became obvious almost immediately to me that in order to do this hunt right, I was going to need to backpack into a wilderness area. Over several weeks, as I reviewed the maps of the unit, it became clear that this place is really remote and big country. I believe scouting is integral part of hunting, something that can literally mean the difference between success and failure. I had a two pronged approach to my scouting goals: 1) talk to as many folks as possible from the Epic Outdoors members list and get as much intel on the unit as possible 2) convince my wife to drive 700 miles over July 4th weekend to go backpacking and scouting.
I really can’t say enough about the caliber of folks at Epic Outdoors and the members that are willing to talk about a hunting unit. I spoke to a number of folks about their experiences in the unit and came away with a solid plan to explore and scout the area. When I initially floated the idea to my wife about heading to Nevada on a backpack/scouting trip she was a bit reluctant. I suspect she figured we would be hiking and glassing sage brush, not atypical of the arid Nevada landscape. However, after I showed her some photos of the higher elevation mountains I had found on Google she immediately agreed.
July came and we were headed to Nevada for a 3.5 day backpacking trip. We are avid backpackers, having hiked the entire John Muir Trail in 2010, we are comfortable in the backcountry and have all the right gear to make it comfortable. We also had a new member of our family, our 1.5 year old chocolate lab Lola, who was going on her first backpacking trip. As we approached the unit, it really became apparent how remote this place is, miles of dirt roads, hours from any town. The beauty even on the drive in was remarkable, wildflowers everywhere. We had to stop frequently on the way up the mountain for photos. All told we hiked in about 7 miles to camp, found plenty of bull elk, got stormed on with marble sized hail and ultimately had a great time. We learned a couple important things from the trip 1) there were plenty of elk and spotting them shouldn’t be an issue 2) the country is extremely rugged; it’s steep, filled with deep canyons and was going to test me in multiple ways come August.
I’m fortunate where I live that I can shoot my bow out to 50 yards from my backyard. I’m obsessive about practicing so I shoot pretty much every day. About 30 days prior to the elk hunt I started shooting broadheads every day. For elk I shoot a fixed-blade broadhead, so starting to shoot them early allowed me time to tune my bow so my field points and broadheads hit the same. It also just provided me the confidence that my broadheads would hit where I’m aiming.
To prepare physically; trail running, hiking with a heavy pack, box steps with pack, lunges…after experiencing those mountains in July I knew I needed to take my fitness to the next level. I also found a great friend, Jay, that would be able to join me on the adventure. We studied the maps and Google Earth, along with the intel we had collected scouting and came up with a game plan.
The first thing a bit unique about archery elk hunting in Nevada is the early start date. Most guys, myself included, dream about hunting the rut in September. That just wasn’t in the cards on this tag. Fortunately, the unit is not heavily forested so it’s more conducive to spot and stalk type of hunting. Based on our scouting in July, our initial plan was to hike in a few miles which would give us access to a ridge line with great glassing in multiple canyons. We also figured why go deeper immediately if we don’t have to – odds were that the elk would be pushed deeper into the wilderness as the season progressed, but why make it harder if we didn’t need to. We would play it by ear and see how many hunters and elk we encountered. We wanted to go relatively light and fast so we packed enough provisions for 5 days in the backcountry – and we had 10 days total to get it done.
The first few days was a combination of hiking and glassing, just seeing what kind of bulls were in the area. On the second day I stalked a 350-inch class bedded bull and a couple of his buddies. I got to about 80-100 yards before I felt the dreaded wind on the back of the neck and the bulls blew out. Bulls – 1, Jason – 0. We had only run into one hunter so far but on the evening of the third day, we talked to a few guys that had plans to hunt an area a ridge over from us the following day. At that point, based on what we had been seeing and with additional hunters in the area, we decided to get up super early the next morning and relocate camp a couple miles deeper into the wilderness.
Day 4 – Game Time & Heartbreak
The move paid off and the next morning we immediately found 6-8 nice bulls, small bachelor groups of 2-3, each in a few different areas. We were on a great glassing knob I had found when scouting with my wife in July, it gave us access to 2 different drainages. We watched all of the bulls but the 2 closest to us were in the most stalkable location so we waited a few hours for them to bed. They finally bedded in a good spot and it was game time. The only variable was a small raghorn and a cow but they headed a couple hundred yards up canyon when I started my stalk. Long story short, I got within 40 yards when the cow miraculously re-appeared and winded me, blowing everything out. The bulls looked confused as they had no idea what was up but they followed the cow nonetheless and they were gone. Dejected, I had about an 800-foot vertical climb back up to the glassing point. I re-hydrated and regrouped once back to the top and had a bite to eat. It was now late in the afternoon but no more than 30 minutes later Jay finds another new loner bull, in the same basin in was just in! It didn’t take long to realize this guy was a 6×7 stud and we immediately relocated to a better vantage. After a few minutes of watching him, we decided I would drop back into the canyon and get the wind right to try to get close. He had bedded in some dense Aspen thickets that I should be able to get close to if the wind would hold. On the way down the ridge, we ran into the same group of hunters we had hoped to escape from the day before. There was definitely a sense of disappointment in both of us that we had the same idea, yet again and kept bumping into each other. For now though I had a stalk to go on before the light faded. I made my way back down into the basin I was just in, having to back out a few times as the thermals changed in the late evening. I was finally able to get on an approach with good wind and I slowly crept my way to the bull’s last known position. I got to a point where I thought I needed to get beyond one more small draw and up to a rise, but I would need to somehow get through some dense mountain laurel quietly. I studied the scene and made it all of 3 steps before the bull crashed out of some Aspens directly in front of me. I ranged where he blew out – 38 yards. I didn’t need to go any further, had I stayed put I might have had a shot. My legs got heavier and my head a little lower on that hike out of the basin. Bulls – 3, Jason – 0.
Day 5 – Resupply and Regroup
We got up early to our glassing spot but had an uneventful morning. One group of elk were spotted many miles away in an area that would require a big commitment for us to get to. Not having a morning play, we decided to hike out to the truck to resupply and shower, and hopefully be back for the evening hunt. On the way out one of the first solo hunters we ran into was on his way out on horseback, apparently he had been drop camped but he was done after 5 days. The shower was magical and we gorged on cold sparkling water and pork rinds. After lunch we hiked back in with another 6 days of food – enough to last us the remainder of the trip. In the evening we decided to try another glassing knob not far from camp and we found a lone 6×6 bull right before last light. Hopefully he’d remain in the basin and we would find him again in the morning.
Day 6 – Close Encounter
We glassed from the same spot and it didn’t take long to find the lone bull. Unfortunately he didn’t stay in the basin, instead he climbed up and across the canyon from us, probably gaining 1500-feet. Fortunately he bedded in a really good spot in some mountain mahogany where I could approach from above and take advantage of the rising thermals. I committed to the stalk, which was about 3 miles and 1500-feet down, then back up to get to the bull. A couple hours later I was in position and I slowly inched my way toward the group of trees we had seen him in. The wind was perfect, the cover was good…inch by inch, glassing every few feet to look for antler tips. After what seemed like an eternity, I caught antler tips as he moved his head. Game on. I slowly settled under a mahogany 40 yards from the bull and got set up. It looked like he would come out in front of me broadside when he got up and would be 35 yards or less. I ranged every tree and rock in the area and had a good idea of what to expect depending on how it played out. I waited patiently, baking in too little shade but not wanting to make any noise or movement. After 30 minutes or so, he got up. As expected he made his way out from under the trees – broadside. The only problem was the small rise in between us hid the lower ground on the other side. As he came out all I could see was his head and the top of his back. He turned to graze away from me and I was able to move undetected up slope to gain some elevation and hopefully clear the rise. What ensued next was incredible…he started coming toward me. Closer. Head down feeding. Closer. Head still down feeding. Closer. Behind a tree. Closer. Head still down feeding. CLOSER! At one point I thought maybe he was going to walk right up to me but at about 10 yards he spotted me. And .572 seconds later he was gone. OH. MY. GOD. What just happened?!?! How did I not get a shot off in such close proximity. I just sat there for a good 15 minutes, mind blown and devastated as I replayed the scene over and over in my mind. He never presented me with even a marginal shot, not even a frontal, he was either head down facing me or behind a tree the entire encounter.
I’ll be honest, I almost lost it at that point. I’m sure most bowhunters have experienced this before, you just don’t think you can do it any longer. I mean, how do you get within 10 yards (and 40 yards and 38 yards) of a bull and not get a shot? But the reality is that’s bowhunting. It’s hard. So many things have to go right, to just maybe get a shot. I had a long walk back to camp to do some soul searching, have an epic pity party, and finally to get it out of my system and move on. Upon arriving back at camp, Jay was a great partner – he knew I was hurting. He replayed the scene as he saw it looking through the spotting scope, and he confirmed what I had experienced, he just never gave me a shot, there was nothing I could have done. Bulls – 4, Jason – 0.
Day 7 – Where’d the elk go?
Back at the same glassing knob at first light, we spot two bulls 2000-feet below us for a few minutes before they disappear in the canyon bottom below. We had seen them the last couple of mornings feeding down off a ridge, but as usual, they vanish shortly after we spot them. There are also numerous elk 2 ridges over, a couple miles away as the crow flies, but pretty much inaccessible for us unless we relocated 6-8 more miles. We glassed our eyes off all day but nothing materialized.
At this point we were at a crossroads. The majority of elk we had been seeing were too far to make a play on from our location and we were running out of time. We either needed to make a quick camp relocation deeper into the wilderness or we had to come up with a plan B, quick! As we discussed our options, we decided to take a chance and make a run at the two bulls we had seen briefly in the morning. The plan was, in the dark I would hike the 2000’ feet down and 3+ miles around the steep canyon below to try and intercept the two bulls. Jay was going to stay on top and glass. I would attempt to position myself on what appeared on the map to be a vantage point that I could hopefully spot them from if they continued with their morning pattern.
Day 8 – Hail Mary
I woke after a restless night of little sleep – the wind howled all night and the deadfall we were surrounded by terrified me in the tent. Unscathed, I was up and headed out from camp a full two hours earlier than normal. Jay stayed behind and would glass from our usual spot and would alert me if he was able to spot the bulls again. Hiking alone in the dark, your senses are heightened. Sounds and shapes you might not have otherwise noticed make you wonder if you are alone, if you are the hunter or the hunted. As I hiked down the canyon, after I got comfortable in the darkness, I began to reflect on the trip so far. I soon became overcome with gratitude; that I was healthy and strong enough to hike these mountains day in and day out, that I have a beautiful wife that supports my hunting obsession, that we have the financial stability and jobs to support our lifestyle, that I have friends willing to join me on these adventures. One foot in front of the other, I slowly made my way down the canyon. As I had so many times before, I began to visualize the bull elk in front of me, drawing my bow, the arrow spinning in perfect flight before it disappears into the elk. This time though the sensation was different, it felt as if it had actually happened. Today was the day, I could literally feel it.
I made it down to the spot we had identified, still in the dark, and waited. It was colder this morning and I put on all my layers as I waited for the world to wake. As the landscape slowly illuminated, I soon realized it wasn’t much of a vantage point I was on. I could see a small portion of the ridge we had seen the bulls on, but the topography hid much of the area…I was just going to have to wait and hope for some luck. Not long after glassing light I got a message on my inReach from Jay – bulls enroute to the same group of mahoganies as yesterday. Game on!
I got ready and started to close the distance to the area the bulls we headed. I had ample cover and good wind for the half mile or so I needed to cover. The topography really was perfect and I was able to quickly make my way to within a couple hundred yards of where I thought they would be. Once I got close I went into slow motion, slowly making my way to a rise that would provide some visibility to the other side of the ridge. I creeped up and began to glass, nothing. Another foot, nothing. Soon I had a decent view of the opposite side and I studied the landscape for any movement, nothing. In previous days, we had seen the bulls milling around in some mountain mahogany or they would drop into the dense cover of the creek bottom. I hoped for the former as I inched my way further and further. The wind was still good, I’d seen no movement on the ridge, but it seemed like I should have seen something by that point. As I made my way in between some trees, I came to a clearing with an open view to the creek, one of the bulls was already 200 yards below me in the creek bottom. No sign of the other one. I got behind some cover and continued traversing around to get a better view of the creek bottom. I looked down and fresh sign, REALLY fresh sign…like still warm. I had to be close. I again slowly cleared some brush and peeked at the opening below, both bulls were now in the creek bottom, in a grassy opening grazing. I quickly studied the topography and checked the wind. There was a little draw 20 yards from me that would take me down to another small stream that would connect to the main creek near where the bulls were. If I could get there quickly, there was a small rise I could hide behind that looked within 40 yards of where the bulls were.
I dropped in elevation as quickly and silently as I could. The sun was starting to illuminate the opposite hillside and the wind that had been steady down canyon would likely shift as the sun warmed the canyon. I had to hurry. The draw provided the perfect cover to stay out of sight and I slowly made my way to the rise. Arrow nocked, inch by inch I moved, each step increasing my view of the grassy creek bottom. I get to where I thought I had seen the bulls and nothing. One more step and I detect movement out of the corner of my eye. I freeze. As my eyes focus, I can see a bull, head completely buried in an aspen, raking like mad. I range him – 50 yards on the dot. His body, now illuminated by the sun is like a beacon. I can’t even see his antlers but his body is huge. Autopilot engages, I ready myself and draw back, slowly take one more step forward. Anchor – solid. Sight – centered. Bubble – level. As my 50 yard pin settles, the arrow is already gone. I can see it spinning, just like I have seen in my minds eye countless times before. I have visualized this moment so many times as the arrow disappears into the bulls chest. The bull charges forward, along with his buddy that was hidden out of view behind a tree, and they cross the creek. Silence.
I expected them to continue crashing. I expected them to run out the other side of the creek bottom. Silence. The shot felt good, I’m confident I executed well and the arrow hit it’s mark. Silence. Then the second guessing that I’m sure every bowhunter has experienced started to creep in. I had to have hit it. I *think* the shot was perfect, right behind the shoulder. Silence. I sit down and calm myself, I notice I’m shaking slightly. Breathe. I just need to be patient and be ready, they could come out the other side and I could get a follow up shot. But I can’t move, they are likely too close and I can’t see them. Silence. After what seemed like an eternity I catch movement and I get ready. A single bull starts to make his way up the slope on the opposite side of the creek, no blood or exit wound based on the direction he’s facing so I can’t be certain which bull it is. He slowly switchbacks up the hill and I study his other side, also clean, it must be the other bull. He wanders slowly up the hill, continually looking back, presumably wondering why the other bull is not following. I hunker down as to not spook him and blow the other bull out if he has not expired. 20 minutes, still there. 30 minutes, still there. At 40 minutes the bull actually starts going back down into the creek bottom and gets behind some trees. This allows me to gain some elevation to get a different view into the creek bottom. I scan with my binos and almost instantly see an unusual brown patch in the grass, I shift another couple feet and I can see the bull’s body, including the blood spot. He’s down!
No longer worried about the other bull, I continued my climb to retrieve my backpack I had dropped before my final stalk. I also sent Jay an inReach message to tell him to get the heck down here, we’ve got a bull down. I retrace the steps of my stalk, documenting with some photos and I approach where the bull was standing to search for my arrow. It doesn’t take long to see my lighted nock, just barely visible in the grass – full pass through as I had thought. Not needing to follow the blood trail, but doing it nonetheless, I make my way to the other side of the creek. There he is, not 30 yards from where I shot him. Having experienced brutal tracking jobs in the past, this was truly a blessing. Did this really just happen? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t lose my shit just a little bit at that moment. Tears were shed. I was overcome with emotion and gratefulness. I thanked the bull for making the ultimate sacrifice and I promised his meat would be cherished. It’s the moment us hunters dream about, and frankly it’s quite surreal. The culmination of a challenging hunt, when you walk up to animal, especially a large elk, can be quite overwhelming. Their size alone always leaves me in awe. And the amount of work that goes into an endeavor like this is significant, the physical demands, the heartaches; and when you finally lay your hands on the animal it can be very emotional. But after the thanks are given, some photos snapped, you realize the work has just begun.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the location of the bull was going to make for a brutal pack out. We were both prepared to do so, but by my estimation, we were now 7 miles and 2200’ below the trailhead. Needless to say that would be a brutal pack out, all uphill like that.. As much as I would like to continue this story describing a burly pack out, I decided that it was best to call in the cavalry. I had contacted a local packer prior to the trip, just in case we got in a predicament like this. It wasn’t going to be cheap, but a horse pack out would be the safest bet to preserve the meat – remember this is August so it was pretty warm. I messaged the packer on the inReach and after a few messages she told me they’d be there that afternoon. Jay and I made fairly quick work quartering the bull and getting everything into game bags to hang and cool. Fortunately we were in the creek bottom so shade was plentiful and it was nice and cool near the water. We barely had time to wash up and have a quick lunch break when we could hear the horses nearby and we could direct them to our location.
Unfortunately we did not get an epic horseback ride out of the wilderness. It turned out to be easier for the packer to come up from the bottom as opposed to trailering the horses and going up to the trailhead where our truck was at. They did however take our heavy packs down with them and they got the elk in cold storage at their ranch where we would meet. Jay was incredibly smart when he bailed down to meet me at the bull, he actually was able to pack up our entire camp and get it all on his back. This saved us a trip back up there and we were able to hike out to the truck with no packs, just a bottle of water. It was a memorable hike out to the truck after 8 days, with no pack, on cloud 9, sharing how it all went down and reminiscing on the entire experience.
I recently heard someone describe bowhunting as “soul crushing”. I really couldn’t agree more. Bowhunting is hard, really hard. On a hunt like this, the fundamentals will always apply: fitness – the mountains and elevation are no joke, gear – know your gear and have your systems dialed before you hit the backcountry, scouting – knowing where not to go is as important as where to go, practice – know your weapon and be able to execute when your adrenaline is high. However, what I have found recently in myself is that the mental game is as challenging and important as the physical game. To me, as physically demanding as it was, the mental part was the crux. Being able to fail day after day, learn from your mistakes, and keep moving forward really was the key to success. And finally, having a partner that you get along with is so critical. Jay was really instrumental to the success of the trip. He was able to keep up with me physically, packed water, he helped spot animals, and he lifted me up when I was down.